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With Cairo assassination, Egypt's cycle of violence turns darker

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Eman Helal/AP

(Read caption) An Egyptian policeman stands guard at the site of a bombing that killed Egypt’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday.

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Egypt's general prosecutor and nine other people were killed by a massive car bomb Monday in one of Cairo's wealthiest and most heavily policed districts, and judging by video of the aftermath, it's something of a miracle that more aren't dead.

The bomb appears to have been remotely detonated, and targeted Prosecutor Hisham Barakat as he left his home in the morning in the Heliopolis neighborhood with a convoy of guards, headed to the office. It appears to have been a daily route, and the car detonated as they passed the national military academy.

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Who killed him? No one has claimed responsibility yet. But the attack came the day before the anniversary of the military-backed protests against elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi two years ago, which led to a coup and, ultimately, to the rise to power of current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, a former Army chief.

Islamist militants, far more hardline than the Brotherhood, have pursued a campaign against Egyptian police, prosecutors, and judges for the past two years, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula but with occasional assassination attempts in Cairo and other parts of the Egyptian mainland. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a terrorist group that pledged its support for the Islamic State last year, claimed responsibility for the failed car-bomb assassination attempt on former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in 2013. 

Within hours of the attack, Mr. Sisi's government publicly blamed the Brotherhood, without providing any evidence.

Mr. Barakat, Egypt's top prosecutor, was appointed to his position by the interim military government in July 2013, and quickly got to work targeting senior Brotherhood figures. That month he froze the assets of most of the Brotherhood's Guidance Council, including its supreme guide, Mohamed Badie. In the years since, Egyptian prosecutors have detained tens of thousands of activists, many from the Brotherhood, and won hundreds of death sentences in Egyptian courts, including for former President Morsi.

Hard line on Brotherhood is popular

While the Muslim Brotherhood has obviously not liked Barakat's prosecutorial zeal, with many of his cases having more than a whiff of political meddling about them, the Sisi government's hard line toward the Muslim Brotherhood has been generally popular. Shortly after the attack this morning, the Arabic hashtag "execute the Brotherhood" began trending on Twitter in Egypt.

One has to wonder if delayed execution sentences will now be carried out. Earlier this month, Morsi himself was transferred to death row. 

Two years since the coup, Egypt has become a far darker and more paranoid place than it has been for decades. Amid a struggling economy and an effort to quell the protest culture that briefly flourished in 2011 and saw longstanding dictator President Hosni Mubarak ushered from power, political repression has become widespread.

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Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least 18 Egyptian reporters are behind bars, the highest total since the CPJ began tracking detentions in Egypt in 1990. Amid the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in jail are dozens, if not hundreds, of secular activists jailed for their political activities.

Is violence the only option for Islamists?

All that has surely committed to a climate where violence seems like the only option for Islamist groups.

"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt has presided over the flagrant abuse of human rights since taking office a year ago pledging to restore stability. Violence by armed groups and the government has escalated," Human Rights Watch wrote this month. "Sisi and his cabinet, governing by decree in the absence of an elected parliament, have provided near total impunity for security force abuses and issued a raft of laws that severely curtailed civil and political rights, effectively erasing the human rights gains of the 2011 uprising."

In August 2013 Egyptian security forces killed around 900 pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo and its suburbs as protest encampments were forcibly cleared. No soldier or policeman has been charged with a crime in those deaths.

A US State Department report signed by Secretary of State John Kerry in May found that "the overall trajectory of rights and democracy has been negative. A series of executive initiatives, new laws, and judicial actions severely restrict freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process, and they undermine prospects for democratic governance. Since July 2013, human rights NGOs and civil society activists describe a steadily shrinking space for peaceful dissent."

Predictions of democracy in tatters

Nevertheless, Mr. Kerry and the Obama administration requested a national security waiver to resume full military financing and arms transfers to Egypt. The Obama administration wants $1.3 billion in military financing provided to Egypt this year and for F-16s, Abrams tanks, and Harpoon missiles to be delivered.

The country is certainly witnessing a period of violence and upheaval not seen at least since the the 1980s. But the bold predictions of a democratic future – and an environment where the wisdom of political participation, rather than violence, would be demonstrated to Islamist groups – are now in tatters. Almost all close observers of Egypt are now predicting another wave of repression in response to Barakat's murder, that will be at least as indiscriminate as those of the recent past. 

A popular Egyptian blogger who writes under the name Zeinobia, captured the mood.

"I think one thing is that such attack will generate more anger and we will have more vengeful actions from the regime which already did not waste any time in the past when it comes oppression and fighting freedoms in the name of counter-terrorism," she writes. "Now I am ready pleas from El-Sisi supporters to impose the emergency law in the country and to carry out executions as well to have military trials. Those guys do not know that military trials are now active."